Friday, October 16, 2020

The Garbageman Cometh

     [A short story for you today, inspired by this article about a possible collision between two superannuated satellites and what might follow.
     Some of what’s discussed below is prefigured in my novel Statesman, and some in my soon to be released novel Love in the Time of Capitalism. -- FWP]

     Leo Hertel had to remind himself about his doctors’ advice that he avoid fits of frustration-induced anger. He breathed deeply, laid the palms of his hands on the surface of the Resolute Desk, and counted his fingers once, twice, thrice, as slowly as he could manage.
     This is going nowhere. I have to recover the initiative.
     “Todd,” he said in his softest tone, “isn’t this just as much a problem for you as for us?”
     “Not at all, Mr. President,” Todd Iverson replied. “The Habitat's LIDAR systems and defense lasers detect and destroy anything that comes into range. We’re on the verge of completely automating the process.”
     “Then why aren’t you willing to help your country protect its orbital resources with that system?” Hertel said.
     “Who says I’m unwilling?”
     Hertel emitted another long, slow breath. “These negotiations say so. The price you’ve asked is extortionate. Your country cannot afford to pay you what you’ve asked. How much would it really cost you to use your laser systems to clear the orbitals?”
    “What it would cost us is irrelevant, Mr. President. What it could cost you not to secure our services is what you should be thinking about. What’s the aggregate value of the American satellites in low Earth orbit, Mr. President? Do you have that information ready to hand?”
     “No, I don’t,” the president admitted, “but the cost to replace them must be hundreds of billions of dollars. That’s what makes securing your assistance so urgent.”
     “Believe me, Mr. President, I appreciate the urgency,” Iverson said. “As it happens I have the costings for replacing just the functioning comsats before me at this very moment. It comes to just a shade under a trillion dollars, not including the costs of transitioning the associated systems from the old ones to the new. Already this year, six have been destroyed or seriously damaged by collisions with orbiting junk. The cost of replacing those six alone is estimated at just under twenty billion dollars, correct?”
     “I don’t have the figures, Todd,” Hertel said. “So I have to trust yours.”
     “You can, sir. I got them directly from the owners of those comsats. Now I’ve asked twenty billion dollars for a complete job—the complete cleansing of the key orbitals of all decommissioned satellites and any other junk we find. A one-time sweep that leaves only the roughly twenty-two hundred active satellites in those orbitals. The problem would be solved for the next twenty years. It sounds like a bargain to me. Moreover, you could pass part of the cost on to the private comsat owners. Even if you couldn’t, it would come to less than half of one percent of the annual federal budget, so I can’t accept your unaffordability protest at face value. What’s your real objection?”
     Hertel pondered his reply.
     I have to assume that I can trust him. If I can’t, what point would there be to any of this?
     “I’ve received a lot of static about the Habitat from Congress,” he said, “How it hurts the United States internationally, how it exploited government intellectual property without compensation...” He paused to gather his forces. “And how it benefits from American protection without paying a dime for it.”
     The silence that stretched between the White House and low Earth orbit became ominous.
     I knew it was a risky play, but I had to say it.
     “Really, Mr. President? Todd Iverson’s voice was tight with fury. “Would you like to discuss the ‘protection’ the Habitat received from the McIlvaine Administration? My gunners had to destroy twenty-three killersats. The twenty-fourth nearly made an end of us. Or perhaps we could talk about McIlvaine’s destruction of the Arcologics Spaceport, instead.”
     “I don’t hold you personally responsible for any of that, Mr. President, but I do hold the federal government of the United States responsible—and liable. McIlvaine’s attacks on us took two hundred thirty-eight lives, including a major investor in the Habitat and one of my best friends. He also destroyed my only means of moving people and resources to and from orbit. In the two years of your administration, I’ve heard no faintest suggestion that the Spaceport be rebuilt at federal expense, or that restitution be offered to Arcologics, or that the families of the victims be compensated for their losses.
     “We are not garbagemen obliged to collect your trash for a pittance, Mr. President. We are the foremost scientific and technological community in existence. In less than five years, our efforts have produced advances in engineering and medicine that have lengthened and improved the lives of millions. We are also the first Americans to establish an enduring human presence in space. And we are the first agency of any sort that can solve the junk-in-space problem at an acceptable cost and without undesirable side effects. We will not be treated as tools or lackeys. Not by the government that has killed our colleagues and isolated us from Earth, at any rate. The price is fixed: twenty billion U.S. dollars, to be paid in advance. The funds will be used to cleanse the Mojave Cession, to rebuild the Spaceport and
Omnibus, and to provide some financial compensation to those who lost family members during the attacks.”
     Hertel’s resolve abandoned him all at once.
     “I’ll take it to Congress.”
     “Thank you, Mr. President. I’ll await developments.”
     The carrier wave hiss dropped to zero.


     Copyright © 2020 Francis W. Porretto. All rights reserved worldwide.


1104wrhmr6r said...

I can't wait for the new book. I have been addicted to reading since I got the chickenpox in 2nd grade. Over the years I have a list of favorite characters.

Samwise Gamgee
Corwin of Amber
Louis Redman
Mouse (Harry Dresden's dog)
Michael Carpentar
James Preston
Wolfgang Kies
Kai Allard-Liao
Phelan Kell
Gwendolyn Novak
I suspect Todd Iverson will be breaking into the top 10 after 'Love in the Time of Capitalism'.
Thank Francis for this taste of the new book and writing it.

Amy Bowersox said...

Love it! Makes a nice postscript to Capitalism, in fact. I'd seriously consider including it as an appendix to the story.

George True said...

Twenty billion dollars to get rid of every bit of space junk orbiting the earth would be an incredible bargain. There are literally millions upon millions of objects in low Earth orbit, ranging in size from a grain of sand to BB's to marbles to baseballs to basketballs. These objects are moving at speeds of thousands of miles per hour. A satellite or an astronaut getting hit by one would be like being hit by a bullet fired from a gun. It is a constant headache for governments and corporations that own and operate satellites and spacecraft to keep track of it all. I wish in real life that it were somehow possible to zap it all out of existence.